books The High Price of Delusion
The Brainwashing of My Dad:
How the Rise of the Right Wing Media Changed a Father
and Divided Our Nation — and How We Can Fight Back
By Jen Senko
IN NOVEMBER 2020, 74 million American voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump. Fifty-three percent of these 74 million believe the 2020 election was stolen. That means roughly a staggering 40 million Americans have crossed the bridge into fantasy land and burned it behind them.
Analyzing how this happened is essential in understanding contemporary America. The Brainwashing of My Dad makes a valuable contribution toward that goal.
Brainwashing, Jen Senko’s documentary film, was released in 2016.(1) Her book of the same name was published in October 2021. These two dates serve as bookends around the sea change that was the Trump presidency.
Trump’s 2016 election caused many pundits to use the same trope, “the cork is now out of the bottle.” If you think of that bottle as a bottle of cheap, knock-off champagne, then think of its contents as being spritzed all over the U.S. capitol building on January 6, 2021.
Jen Senko tells the story of how the bottle’s foil was removed and its cork loosened, on both the personal scale of her father Frank Senko, and on the larger scale of tens of millions of voters. A big chunk of the story is told through the growth of right wing media.
Their 1960s and Ours
In a celebrated November 1964 essay “The Paranoid style of American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter put a name to a familiar theme in U.S. politics. Paranoia soon became an apt metaphor for how American politics played out in the 20th century.
But paranoia is one thing while derangement and delusion are another. They were a bridge too far, even for the New Right of the early 1960s.
In early 1961, Robert Welch and the three-year-old John Birch Society labeled President Dwight Eisenhower “a card-carrying Communist” — not a sympathizer, but an actual capital C Communist.
Alarm bells went off in the “respectable” conservative world. Its Republican Party leader Barry Goldwater and its intellectual gatekeeper William F. Buckley, Jr. wasted no time in excommunicating Welch and his Society. What happened between then and now?
While Senko begins her account of the rise of right-wing media in the years of the Great Depression, I’ll skip ahead to the 1960s. The late 1960s were a heady time for the American left.
The title of Max Elbaum’s book on the Maoist New Communist Movement of the period, Revolution in the Air, captures the zeitgeist of those years. The U.S. Socialist Workers Party declared in 1971: “…we have a deeper, broader radicalization (than the 1930s) and there will be no reversal of this radicalization before the working masses of this country have had a chance to take power.”
On December 31, 1969 I made a new year’s toast, “to the 1970s, the decade of the American revolution.” Sadly, history has not been kind to our unbridled optimism.
While we on the left were looking through a telescope with a rose-colored lens, the cadre of the right were using a microscope with clear glass. They saw an economy with a falling rate of profit, a student movement occupying Ivy League campuses, unions afraid to strike, a civil rights struggle that morphed into the Black Power Movement and the first rumblings of militant feminism.
To launch their counterattack they saw the urgent need for a revamped media.
Three Mileposts in the Counterattack
First came Reed Irvine. Irvine was a Federal Reserve economist. When he looked through his microscope he focused on the 1968 Democratic Party Convention and what was to him a “liberal bias” in the media’s coverage of that police riot on the streets of Chicago.
Just months after the teargas cleared, Irvine founded Accuracy in Media (AIM). He was to remain at its head for the next 35 years.
Continuing to the present day, AIM has championed every rightwing cause it comes across. Although the specific cause may change, the focus on ending the “liberal bias” of the “mainstream media” has remained a constant.
Basketball fans will recognize AIM’s tactic. It’s known as “gaming the ref,” or claiming biased officiating. It starts at tipoff and never lets up. One-time conservative columnist David Brock puts it this way in Brainwashing:
“Basically, the idea of this group (AIM) was to counter their feeling that the media were opposed to Nixon’s policies in Vietnam. That’s how it began, but you could see how the campaign to discredit the media in the eyes of conservatives would lay the groundwork for a vast alternative media that would come later. It opened up space for conservatives to get a foothold in the media.(2)
Second came the infamous 1971 Lewis Powell Memorandum, which added its voice to AIM’s mantra of the charge of “liberal bias.” The memo’s call was that “complaints to the media and the Federal Communications Commission should be made promptly and strongly when programs are unfair and inaccurate” (i.e. not conservative enough).
Powell put special emphasis on targeting “television, which now plays such a predominant role in shaping the thinking, attitudes, and emotions of our people.”(3)
Jen Senko points to a third source of the right’s media capture project. A memo called “A Plan for Putting the GOP on the TV News” was discovered, buried in the bowels of the Nixon Library, by a Gawker researcher named John Cook.
The plan may have been written by media guru Roger Ailes. At any rate his handwritten notes are all over it. Brainwashing observes,
“The memo sets out a detailed plan for getting television stations to promote GOP friendly news. It outlined a way to avoid ‘the censorship, the priorities and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators’ and deliver ‘pro (Nixon) administration stories to its viewers.’
One glaring passage in the memo leaps out, “People are lazy. With television you just sit-watch-listen. The thinking is done for you.” More than a quarter century before its triumph, a vision of Fox News was taking shape.
Deregulation Clears the Path
Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and 60-plus years of reining in the power of private media vanished with the stroke of a pen. Reed Irvine’s mission was accomplished — the referees were finally gamed.
Thom Hartman puts it this way: “As a result, unprofitable news became very profitable infotainment, and radio and TV stations no longer had to ‘pay’ for their monopoly use of our public airways with ‘programs in the public interest.’”(4)
Gone were limits on ownership. Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, 40 stations were the maximum number allowed for any one owner. After a few short years of shopping as if at a fire sale, Clear Channel alone mushroomed to over 1200 stations in its portfolio.
Much of rural America became saturated by rightist media. For example, Minot, a town of 48,000 in North Dakota, now has six stations, all owned by Clear Channel. (Clear Channel has rebranded itself iHeart).
As the smoke cleared, AM radio found itself on new terrain. “A 2007 study of 257 news/talk stations by the progressive Center for American Progress found 91% of the programming was conservative, an imbalance they concluded was not market driven, but a result of multiple structural problems in the U.S. regulatory system.”(5)
“Thanks to Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Clear Channel, and the phalanx of right-wing broadcasters who appeared in the 1990s, and 2000s, conservative radio and television had become a mainstay of American life, not only reaching an audience of millions, but driving the shape and focus of the rest of the news media and reworking the definition of objectivity in the process.”(6)
Jen’s Father is Programmed
Frank Senko, the dad in The Brainwashing of My Dad, fits many but not all of the demographics of the Fox News junkie. At the time of his “conversion” Frank checked the boxes: older (the average viewer being in their 60s), angry, white and male.
But Jen describes a much different father in her childhood years. Her description of a younger Frank paints him as non-judgmental and happy-go-lucky. Although a Kennedy Democrat, he was not a particularly passionate one — perhaps semi-political at most.
One story stands out in Jen’s memory of her dad. On a childhood visit to New York, her family disembarked at the Port Authority in Manhattan. Just outside its doors, Frank was confronted by a homeless African-American man. After a brief conversation with the man, Frank gave him a generous contribution and called him “sir.” Decades later, Jen looked back on that day with affection and pride.
Jen’s dad came from a poor family of immigrants from Poland and Ukraine. He recalled walking barefoot to school in rural Allegheny County, Pennsylvania during the Depression years of his childhood.
A military stint during World War II led to school on the GI Bill and eventually to a master’s degree in engineering. Most of Frank’s working career was in a government job at Ft. Monmouth, N.J.
Frank spent the Fort Monmouth years commuting by carpool, which meant good-natured bantering and office gossip with the other passengers. There was no need for the car radio — except perhaps for traffic updates.
All that changed when Frank continued to work after his semi-retirement. He began working three or four days a week at a part-time job that required a long commute. Preferring the stimulus that talk radio provided over music, he now had a new drive-time companion.
Steve Rendall, a co-founder and former senior analyst for the media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), points out in an interview recorded in Brainwashing, “Most people don’t think about this, but talk radio is something unlike a lot of other media, that is, it’s almost always done alone. And they’re listening to this one other person, and there’s sort of a personal thing there, and a connection.”
In his book Talk Radio’s America, Brian Rosenwald makes a similar point when he quotes historian Gil Troy:
“Talk radio creates an illusion of community and fosters a surprisingly strong sense of identity at a time when anonymous shopping malls replaced intimate main streets. Americans, especially older ones, yearned for connection and community and talk radio provided it.”(7)
Frank Senko’s entry drug to the world of rightwing media was a loud mouth host named Bob Grant. Wikipedia gives us a flavor of Grant’s racism. Grant dubbed his format “Combat Talk.” An example of its style: Grant describes Haitian refugees as “swine” and “sub-human infiltrators,” who multiply “like maggots on a hot day.”
This period marks Frank’s transition from mensch to monster. The transition was complete a year or so later when Rush Limbaugh came on the scene in 1988. Soon Limbaugh became what Frank called “My hero,” adding “I always agree with Rush.”
Deeper Into the Woods
Now completely retired, Frank established a new routine that revolved around his obsession with conservative media. Three hours every weekday were carved out for what Jen designated “Limbaugh Lunches.”
The kitchen was commandeered and the volume on the radio turned up. When the bombastic sound of Rush’s voice bled into the living room, Frank’s wife Ellen put her foot down. The solution? A heavy wooden door was installed to keep Rush in the kitchen.
There was little down time in Frank’s “re-education.” When Limbaugh went to commercials, the radio was muted and the sound of Fox News was turned louder. At night, Frank plugged in earbuds and listened to talk radio in bed. Once again, Ellen complained. The solution? Separate bedrooms.
At this point, Frank was lost as a casualty to the world of conservative media: talk radio, Fox News, and a steady diet of emails filled most of his waking hours.
As his daughter recounts, “In the years that followed, he fell down a rabbit hole, which completely took over his life and hammered home the realities of how the media we consume impacts the way we think and how we see the world.”
Gone was the “happy-go-lucky” “live and let live” dad of Jen’s youth. In his place was a combative, irritable man, driven to convert everyone he came across to his new world view. His daily barrage of right wing emails caused many of his friends and family to block him.(8)
Was Frank Senko brainwashed? Or even more fundamental: Is there such a thing as brainwashing?
Is Brainwashing a Real Thing?
The verb “to brainwash” made its debut in American discourse in the early 1950s.
Edward Hunter, a Cold War journalist and OSS veteran with ongoing ties to the CIA, is generally credited with introducing “brainwashing” into popular culture.
Hunter’s 1951 book, Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds, tied together anti-communism and the Orientalist stereotype of the devious Asian. The image of the cruel Chinese interrogator was cemented in the 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, followed by the popular movie of the same name three years later.(9)
Real or not, in 1953, CIA director Allen Dulles approved MK Ultra, a top secret U.S. program in an attempt to duplicate the Chinese “success” in washing brains. Kat Eschner wrote in an April 17, 2017 Smithsonian article:
“It (MK Ultra) ballooned in scope and its ultimate result, among other things, was illegal drug testing on thousands of Americans. But MK Ultra has gone down as a significant example of government abuse of human rights, and for good reason.”
To hide it from the American public, much of the project’s dirty work was franchised out to Canadian hospitals and clinics.
Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy, and Genetics at the University of Oxford, is one of the experts Jen Senko interviews for her book. Professor Taylor is the author of Brainwashing, the Science of Thought Control.
In her book, Taylor introduces the concept of “brainwashing by stealth.” Unlike the physical, coercive force of popular imagination, brainwashing by stealth more resembles what happened to Frank Senko and his immersion in the subculture of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.
“Since brainwashing is all about belief change,” Jen Senko writes, “I asked Dr. Taylor to describe the factors in creating it.” In her answer Taylor cites five criteria. Frank’s case meets them all:
1) Isolation, cutting the subject off from other sources of information.
2) Control, which involves the brainwasher having control of new information (Rush often would tell his listeners, “Don’t think about this until I get back to you on Monday.”)
3) Uncertainty, where the subjects’ old beliefs are attacked, leaving them confused and unsure.
4) Repetition, talking points are repeated ad nauseam.
5) Strong emotion, a staple on Fox News.
Taylor further explains brainwashing by stealth. “(The subject) is not so much forced to believe something, but all the information coming at them is pushing a line. There is no alternative in terms of information. So, if you control the information that goes into the brain, to a great degree you control what the brain is going to think and believe. That makes it difficult for the person to think of anything else because the horizons are narrowed and everything is constricted down to what information is available to them.”
There is more than one reason why 40 million American voters believe the 2020 election was stolen and have crossed the bridge into an alternate universe. There are deep-going material reasons beyond the deceptive power of media involved in this mass delusion, but we underestimate the role of media in this process at our own peril.
- The 2016 video is 86 minutes long and is available on YouTube.
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- Throughout “Brainwashing” Jen Senko quotes from interviews she conducted with Noam Chomsky, David Brock, Rick Perlstein, Kathleen Taylor and others.
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- A Confidential Memorandum: The Attack on the Free Enterprise System, Lewis Powell, August 23, 1971.
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- The Hidden History of the American Oligarchy, Thom Hartman, 26.
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- Messengers of the Right, Nicole Hemmer, 267.
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- Ibid., 269.
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- Talk Radio’s America, Brian Rosenwald, 16.
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- Thanks to a hospital stay in his 80s, followed by a long convalescence, Ellen Senko took charge of Frank’s media access. She eliminated FOX News and talk radio from Frank’s routine. Over time much of the old Frank reemerged. In the Brainwashing video Frank now described himself as an “independent” and having no problem with same-sex marriage. Frank Senko died at the age of 93 in 2016, at peace with his family and friends.
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- The concept of “brainwashing” was used to explain why American POWs made public statements denouncing U.S. imperialism.
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Guy Miller is a retired United Transportation Union member, long-time socialist and lifelong resident of Chicago.